Archive | October 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Violent Stifling of Dissent

I am disgusted to hear the news this morning of the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against “Occupy” protesters in Oakland, CA. Disgusted, but not surprised given the hateful and divisive political culture that America has devolved into. It is an affront to First Amendment of the the Constitution, which rightist claim to worship word for word, to politically plural liberal democracy and to human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the United States is a major signatory.

It is fitting then, that I write today about Burmese democracy activist and political philosopher, Aung San Suu Kyi. I had the pleasure of attending her acceptance ceremony for this year’s Wallenberg Medal, given to “outstanding humanitarians whose actions on behalf of the defenseless and oppressed reflect the heroic commitment and sacrifice of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during the closing months of World War II”.

Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to travel, as she would likely not be allowed to return to Burma. She has spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, for the simple crime of having questioned single party, authoritarian rule. Her celebrity has protected her from violent suppression,though her followers are not so lucky. Affectionately known as “Daw Suu” by her supporters, she taped her acceptance speech and had it shipped to the US for the event. A live question and answer session through Skype followed the acceptance speech.

Her speech was as exceptional as many that she has given before. Although known as an pro-democracy activist, fighting for positive and non-violent political change in her troubled country, she should well be recognized as a great political philosopher. Her speeches are brilliant, mixing her calls for a radical and overdue political transformation of Burma with deep political reflection, philosophy and Burmese Buddhist thought.

Her calls for a peaceful conversion of Burma to a multiparty democracy were relevant to today’s very depressing news. It is even more depressing that she repeatedly used the United States as an example of a model democracy. When asked about the political transformations occurring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and whether these countries were truly ready for democracy, given a present trend of repression occurring in Egypt at the moment, she quickly pointed out that the United States also has a deep history of repression. She pointed out that we, as a nation, have moved on from violence to democracy through verbal, rather than violent, argument. There may be deep divisions within our country, but violent repression is largely over.

That is, until recently. It is depressing to me to see pictures of young people hit by rubber bullets, to see tear gas thrown to stifle free assembly, and worse yet, to hear very little from the rightist establishment that is the target of these protests, however confused and unfocused the OWS messages may be. It is sad that, we as a model for worldwide democracy are slowly watching a return to Civil Rights/Vietnam era state backed violence.

Daw Suu’s primary message is that oppressive governments succeed through the creation of fear. Daw Suu said, “Fear renders us dumb and passive. Fear paralyzes.” If citizens are afraid, they are weak and easily controlled. If they are free from fear, they are invincible. In the best case, the haphazard, targeted and violent measures of later will solidfy the resolve of Americans to question the authoritarian machine. In the worst case, it will instill fear in our nations young people and render them silent. If the latter occurs, and young Americans succumb to fear, we are finished as a nation.

_________________________________________

From Daw Suu’s landmark speech, “Freedom From Fear:”

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

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Books of the Week

Lower back pain.

In lieu of writing a review of the 1956 Egyptian masterwork, “Cairo Station,” a story of the sexual obsessions of a handicapped newspaper salesman, I decided to briefly reassess the contents of by backpack. I just looked in it to see what I’m lugging around with me:

1. “The Dialectical Biologist” (1985) – Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin
2. “Accessibility and Utilization: Graphical Perspectives on Health Care Delivery” (1984) – Alun E. Joseph, David R. Phillips
3. “Beyond the World Bank Agenda” (2008) – Howard Stein
4. “Public Health and the Political Imagination in Mexico: 1790-1910” (unpublished, 2010) – Paul Ross
5. “釜が崎:歴史と現在 (Kamagasaki: History and Present Day” (1993)) – 釜が崎資料センター(Kamagasaki Document Center)
6. “くもんの小学ドリル:6年生の漢字(Kumon’s Elementary Kanji Drill: 6th Grade)” –Kumon Press

There’s not much that strings these books together, though five of them are excellent. One of my biggest failings, is being easily impressed. Perhaps it’s a positive, I’m not sure, but I’m easily drawn to books, no matter how relevant or irrelevant they are to what I should or should not be working on. Sometimes, I consider whether I might have some adult form of ADD. It’s possible, or maybe I’m just easily swayed.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from this list, though, out of loyalty to my good friend Paul Ross, I have to say that his is the one I’m most excited about. A full review will have to come later, however.

Dispensing with the obligations of friendship, no matter how willingly assigned, Stein’s “Beyond the World Bank Agenda” is a fascinating account of how a combination of bumbling adherence to neo-classical economics and US economic interests created a behemoth which decimated Sub-Saharan African economies during the 80’s and 90’s. It’s dense reading but an eye-opener to how power politics used flawed economic assumptions to the detriment of the planet’s poorest. Stein does not seek to expose a nefarious global conspiracy, but rather views the failures of structural adjustment as a result of antiquated economic ideas, a disconnect between the goals of the Bank and the realities on the ground and the failure to consider evidence when shaping monetary policy.

In 1985, Levins and Lewontin collected a number of essays challenging standard Cartesian approaches to biology which view organisms as linear endpoints of environmental conditions. They call for a Hegelian, dialectical approach, that views organisms as part of a dynamic whole, which reacts in concert with their respective environments to both respond and manipulate their surroundings. While the writing is incredibly obtuse, the implications are huge. It is difficult (impossible?) to boil the work down into a few sentences, though the underlying message is quite similar to Stein’s. Traditional, “accepted” methodologies are often overly simplistic, based on untested assumptions, and the application of which leads to incorrect, and sometimes destructive conclusions.

I’ll skip the book on health care accessibility as it is only relevant to my research. The book of essays on Kamagasaki is part of an ongoing project and will have to wait until later.

The sixth isn’t really excellent, being merely a drill book for 6th graders, though helpful. I am happy at least to know more Kanji than the average Japanese 3rd grader. One has to celebrate these minor victories.

The Release of Gilad Shalit and Human Worth

This week, an Israeli solider held captive in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip was released in exchange for more then 1000 Palestinian prisoners. The event is meaningful, not only in terms of Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation, an improbable result of this exchange, but also as a measure of the vast divide of human worth between the wealthy and the poor.

Gilad Shalit is a nobody. He is a (now) 25 year old French/Israeli national who served as a low ranking soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. Symbolically, he was a giant. That Hamas kept him alive for five years in Israel’s backyard despite numerous attacks on Gaza by the IDF and an ever complicated political battle over Palestinian statehood should serve as proof to his significance.

Most interesting to me, however, is the vast divide of the value of humans between the richest of the world and the poorest. One Gilad Shalit is exchanged for 1,027 faceless Palestinian prisoners. If we are to quantify the relative value of humans from Israel and Palestine, we could say that a Palestinian is worth less than one one-thousandth of an Israeli. The GDP per capita of the West Bank and Gaza was $1,123 in 2005. The GDP per capita of Israel is $26,256. The monetary worth of a Palestinian is one twentieth that of an Israeli.

Comparisons of GDP for the US, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan (World Bank)

The 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda on New York City and Washington, DC claimed 2,996 lives. The retaliatory conflicts that were soon begun by the United States on Afghanistan and later, Iraq, have killed an estimated 200,000 people. The exact number is unknown, mostly due to Afghanistan’s lack of reporting and recording infrastructure. Iraq’s contribution, however, totals more than 150,000 as of 2011. If figure that this means that an Iraqi and a person from Afghanistan are worth approximately 1.4 hundredths of an American (1.4%).

The GDP per capita of Iraq and Afghanistan are $2,090 and $483, respectively, where as the GDP per capita of the United States is $45,989. The monetary value of an and Iraqi and and Afghanistani compared to an American are 1% and 4.5%, respectively.

The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan claimed 2,403 lives. Over the course of the war, more than 3,000,000 Japanese lost their lives. Now, certainly, the war with Japan was inevitable. Thus, I calculate the relative value of a Japanese civilian to an American in 1940 to be less than .0001 or one ten-thousandth of an American.

I do not mean this calculation as a criticism of the decision to go to war. I won’t go there, though I will say that the war in Iraq was unjustified, and the decision to use the Atom Bomb on Nagasaki/Hiroshima was reprehensible from every measure of human rights and human decency. (I guess I went there, anyway. Oh well..)

Rather, I intend this as a criticism of the destructive and cyclical process of war itself. It is important to recognize that nearly no American civilians died in World War II, very few died on 9/11 and relatively very few Israelis have died in he conflict with Palestine. Most of the dead on the other side have been, in fact, women, children and the aged, the historical case in nearly all conflicts. These numbers, do, however, unveil the vast disparities in human worth between those at the top, and those at the bottom and personally, I find this disparity to be incredibly depressing.

Robert Zoellick of the World Bank

Robert Zoellick, present head of the World Bank, came and spoke at the UM Business School today. I went into the talk with a number of personal prejudices, though I attempted to keep an open mind. It’s difficult, though, after having read so much about the World Bank and its deep history of pushing US economic policy on to the world and make life unbearable for developing economies[1].

Zoellick himself has a complex history. In addition to being appointed head of the World Bank in 2007 under GW Bush, Zoellick has served and the Deputy Secretary of State and the US Trade Representative under Bush and, worse yet, was the managing directed of Goldman Sachs. Zoellick served as Executive Vice President of Fannie Mae, and as Deputy Chief of Staff under George Bush, Sr.

Zoellick signed the famous Jan 26, 1998 letter to President Clinton from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), along with Richard Armitage, Robert Kagan and Donald Rumsfeld, that advocated for war against Iraq. PNAC were a neo-conservative think tank who were instrumental in the development of the worst policies of the Bush years, including the failed strategy in Afghanistan and the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Although the group is now defunct, and some of its members, such as Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, have publicly disavowed their links to the group (and its importance), PNAC’s philosophy is summed up in its by-line:

“The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.”

Zoellick was part of the dubious foreign policy advisory group during GW Bush’s 2000 campaign, the Vulcans, which included later World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz, later Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice, Richard Armitage and others. This group would help form the disastrous Bush Doctrine which would appear after the 9/11 attacks.

Zoellick’s laundry list of neo-conservative credentials should give one pause to consider how he would become the leader of a financial institution whose stated goal is “poverty reduction.”

Zoellick’s presentation was essentially a reading of the World Bank PR sheet, listing the five points that Zoellick stated that he hoped to achieve when he became leader of the Bank in 2008. Zoellick was only challenged directly by two groups of individuals. First, was a staged walk-out of people wearing dollar bills over their mouths, intended to distract the audience from Zoellick’s introduction. Second, was a question by Alan Haber, the first President of the Students for a Democratic Society. While he drew sneers and laughs from the audience, he was the only person to mention the World Banks dubious past, specifically, the structural adjustment policies of the 80’s and 90’s, which led to vast declines of health and economy in African countries.

Zoellick was noticeably agitated by Haber’s question and rather bullish in his response. He claimed that the Bank hasn’t endorsed structural adjustment policies for 15 years. The content of his presentation, however, conflicted with this claim.

Zoellick repeatedly called for the liberalizing of markets by developing countries, specifically calling for deeper access of American businesses to developing economies, a view which is essential to neo-liberal thinking. He blatantly referred to the Bank as a means of pursuing United States economic interests though the encouragement of market liberalization in the developing world. Odd, given that the Bank is supposedly an international body. I have long found that conservatives only rail for free markets as much as it benefits themselves. Zoellick proved that he views the liberalization of markets as necessary only in such that it benefits US economic interests.

At numerous times, he called for the privatization of government services, using an example from China to illustrate his point. China recently took the Bank’s advice (and their money) to privatize toll roads in one province of China, emanating Indiana, of all places. Zoellick called government allocation of resources “inefficient,” ironic considering that the World Bank itself is a government body. Zoellick referred to the Bank’s (arguably paternalistic) role in helping to root out political corruption and inefficiency in developing country economies.

Most telling, however, was Zoellick’s attitude of US exceptionalism. He claimed several times, that the United States has an important role to play in insuring world political and economic stability. He called for the United States to remain focused on foreign policy and not to sidetrack itself with its domestic concerns, as it has done since the 2007 economic crisis, but the aims of that foreign policy appear to mostly economically sef-serving. Still, this is clearly a philosophical point of United States hegemony, oft repeated by US right wingers. Zoellick stated flatly, “if the US sidelines itself, it’s going to become a much nastier world.” While this is a point that’s free to be debated, it can be argued that the world has become a nastier place simply because the US refused to sideline itself on certain issues, an historical fact that Zoellick, like other heavy handed right wingers, chooses to overlook. How Zoellick and his conservative bretheren, some of whom are fighting for the next Presidential nomination, presume to maintain US “exceptionalism” in a world of rising economic powers is completely up to speculation.

I sincerely tried to listen to the presentation while being skeptical of the World Bank’s critics[1-3]. However, Zoellick essentially solidified my position that the World Bank is a body that acts solely in the economic interest of the United States. While individuals at the Bank may sincerely wish to better the world and alleviate poverty, it is apparent that the leadership works under narrow, self-interested goals, antiquated economic assumptions, and in a sequestered environment which prevents them from truly seeing the larger economic picture of the world. In addition, the condescending tone that Zoellick takes when referring to developing nations (specifically in SSA) make the entire prospect is rather frightening.

 

1.    Stein H: Beyond the World Bank agenda: an institutional approach to development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2008.

2.    Stiglitz JE: Globalization and its discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.; 2002.

3.    Cooper F: Africa since 1940: the past of the present. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press; 2002.

3.    Howard S: Economic development and the anatomy of crisis in Africa : from colonialism through structural adjustment. 2000.

Food Week Post 3: Subsidies, Sugar and Slavery

Sugar costs money. In fact, everything that’s bad for you in the American diet is heavily subsidized by the United States Government. A few large scale producers of sugars, oils, grains and other commodity crops receive huge payouts from the federal government to produce what they do.

Proponents of subsidies point to issues of food security, the protection of rural economies, and broader benefits of the low cost of food in the United States as justification for spending nearly half of one percent of the entire federal budget on direct payouts to American farmers. The truth is that the United States is one of the most food secure areas of the planet, that urban economies receive the largest benefit from food subsidies and that subsidies really work to keep producers of BAD food like Frito-Lay and McDonalds financially well fed.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

While the proponents of subsidies, who often have deep interests in large agri-business, point to the poor, struggling American farmer as justification for continued subsidies, the truth is that the economy of agriculture couldn’t be healthier. The mean income of a farming operation was close to $90,000 last year, far beyond the national average/ Overall revenues from farming at an historical high. The farming sector is expected to pull in more than $100 billion in revenue this year, $31 billion more than 2010. A 24% increase!

Most family owned small farms are struggling and actually lose money on their farming operations. However, the bulk of farming is now done by large agricultural conglomerates, beholden not to Grandma and Grandpa but to urban elites and global stock-holders. These groups have a vested interest in continuing subsidy payments because it increases the health of it’s stock holdings. However, they don’t like to spread the subsidies around to people like my local struggling organic vegetable farm.

These subsidies have global implications. While right-wing blowhards in the US tout neo-classical ideas of “free-markets,” “small government” and “open competition,” the US government’s massive subsidies of agricultural commodities actually do what said blowhards say is a bad idea. The subsidies artificially depresses world commodity prices, giving the United States a competitive advantage on the world market.

The small country of Benin depends on cotton for 80% of its exports, which amount to a little over a billion dollars. A modest one percent decrease in the world price of cotton barely registers on the American economy. A one percent decrease in world cotton price has disastrous implications for a country like Benin, whose tiny GDP is only $6.4 billion or $1500 per capita. It has been estimated that US farm subsidies cost small cotton producing West African countries more than $250 million every year, $250 million dollars that could have been invested in schools, health care, power and communication infrastructure, and domestic industries. In essense, developing countries pay, in both lost revenues and human health, to beef up the stock portfolios of investors in big-Ag.

This isn’t even the worst of it. The sugar industry of Florida notoriously imports labor from Jamaica to assist in the grueling annual sugar cane harvest. For the privelege of cutting sugar cane all day, workers are rewarded a little as $2 per hour and must suffer under prison like conditions. These were most famously document in the fantastic 1990 documentary work of Stephanie Black, “H2 Worker.” Conditions may or may not have improved, to my knowledge they may have not. How could a business model used for the past 500 years change overnight? Slavery and the sugar industry built the United States; we won’t let go of it so easily.

The health of this criminal industry depends on massive subsidies from the US Government, who will happily turn a blind eye to the reprehensible conditions that workers slave under. Worse yet, as in interview with the late progressive Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley reveals, these subsidies prevent Jamaica (or even Haiti) from successfully developing its own sugar industry, thereby robbing a struggling country of a chance to lift itself out of poverty.

All of the large agricultural conglomerates that have headquarters in the United States such as Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Archer Daniels, and the beneficiaries of continued agricultural subsidy programs are internationally owned conglomerates that operate throughout the globe. Thus, in addition to the massive negative worldwide implications of commodity subsidies I just mentioned, the question of political sovereignty must also be addressed. Lost in neo-liberal right wing discussions is the role of international bodies in determining United States domestic policy. To me, the very idea of sovereign states in the 21st century is but an illusion and passports really just serve as protectionist labor schemes. Worse yet, democracy itself is called into question, when the money of the worldwide elite are able to shape US policy to serve its own narrow goals.

Movie of the Week: “Democracy in Dakar” (2009)

Apparently, Senegal is number 3 in the world for rap and hip hop. I’m pretty sure I know who number 1 is, though I’m sketchy on who number 2 is. I hope it’s not Germany.

Senegal, after 40 years of suffering under an inefficient and corrupt socialist government, moved to a market based capitalist democracy in the year 2001. Aging Abdoulaye Wade was elected by popular vote in 2001, much to the excitement of the Senegalese. Part of what made his ascendancy possible, was the broad support he received from local hip hop and rap artists. Wade ran on a populist platform promising expanded power, water, schools and jobs.

Wade has yet to provide any of those. In fact, the economy of Senegal has only become worse. Wade is increasingly autocratic, the government is filled with corruption and an increasing population is straining already scarce resrouces. Worse yet, those who speak out against decaying conditions are threatened, arrested and sometimes beaten by government supporters. Ironically, the very people that put Wade into power are the ones suffering most under his increasingly despotic regime.

Young Senegalese are fleeing Senegal in droves, often embarking on makeshift fishing boats bound for Spain or France. There, low wage jobs await in agriculture, manufacturing or the service industry. A single Senegalese living overseas can support his immediate and extended family for a lifetime. The trip is dangerous, and many die along the way.

In fact, many of the interviews with the members of the Senegalese music scene are expats. Some of the major players are actually living in Washington, DC, and some in Europe. Others live in hiding in their own country, the victims of violent threats to themselves and their families.

The directors of “Democracy in Dakar” follow more than one hundred members of the Dakar hip hop scene. It is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of a developing country urban music scene that I’ve ever seen. The credit for the depth and lucidity of the interviews goes as much to the directors as to the Senegal itself. All of the artists take their craft as seriously as they do their politics and are more than aware of their importance both as artists and as a political voice for the people of Senegal.

Plus, the music is just fantastic. It reminds me of the early Jamaican reggae and ska scenes, though without the excessive commodificiation that eventually killed it. I normally dislike hip hop. In fact, I find the American hip hop scene to be an insipid, materialistic and plastic version of what it began as, divorced from the politics of marginalization and slave to the mighty dollar and corporate exploitation. I admit this characterization is most likely not fair; I probably need an education on US hip hop. However, If I am to take “Democracy in Dakar” as representative of the Senegalese hip hop scene, then I am officially a fan.

The U.S., Big Oil and the Lord’s Resistance Army

The news broke yesterday that the Obama admin is sending 100 US troops to Uganda to root out the Lord’s Resistance Army and finally bring their leader, Joseph Kony, to justice. The American public, still reeling from the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are notably suspicious.

A world without the LRA and Joseph Kony is a better world. Kony and his group have waged a war against humanity. Acts of violence, dismemberment, disfigurement, rape, child slavery and exploitation are just the top of the list of the horror story that the LRA have created in Northern Uganda,the DRC and the Sudan. Estimates vary, but it has been said that the LRA has abducted more than 100,000 children as child soldiers and killed tens of thousands more. Ostensibly, the LRA is a Christian group, though, though experts point out that there are heavy elements of Acholi mysticism and politics. They are similar to many charismatic groups in Africa, though they distinguish themselves though bloodshed and rape.

The LRA has been active since 1986, when mystic and spirit medium Alice Auma, created the Holy Spirit Movement to rid the Ugandan government of the influence of witchcraft and satanism and abate the spiritual crisis that had stricken Uganda. Truly, though, Kony and the LRA have used mysticism to achieve broader goals of power, control and terror. The LRA is little different from a widespread pattern of witchcraft accusations, which gel rural populations together against a common, and mystical, enemy.

The interest of the Obama admin and the United States is far too little, too late, almost 25 years too late. In some sense, the United States unwittingly created the conditions that produced a group like the LRA, through its long and protracted war with the Soviet Union and China that it fought by proxy in the DRC and Angola. The ideological fight between the two Cold War powers destabilized the entire region by providing a consistent supply of sophisticated weaponry and favoring the worst and most despotic of leaders, not the least of which was President Mobuto of Zaire. Presently, supplies for the LRA come from neighboring Sudan, though food and health care appear to remain scarce.

So why now? The second scramble for Africa is underway. Nigeria and Angola are both major suppliers of petrochemicals, and a recent oil find in Uganda has finally put this small and landlocked country on the map of speculators and oil investors. China has long sought to dig its claws into Africa’s vast resources and turn attention away from the west. China’s as yet untested relationship with Africa provide it a considerable advantage over the west long history of exploitation. The United States is therefore in a precarious position. In it’s search for new sources of petroleum, it can’t let Africa slip though it’s fingers. The cost of 100 well trained troops to stabilize Uganda’s rural, oil possessing regions, is far outweighed by the benefits of obtaining a new source of energy resources.

This could be a boon to the struggling, though emerging, country of Uganda. Finally securing the Northern region of Uganda could free up Uganda’s financial resources that it could invest into infrastructure and economic expansion. Sales of oil contracts could provide a solid source of income for a country with few options. It could also be a curse. Mismanagement and corruption could, at best, exacerbate inequality and at worst, finance even more conflicts.

Regardless, the US’s refusal to move on from petroleum will be its political downfall. Several years ago, discussion of alternative energy, efficiency and technology has been replaced by calls for expansion of dirty, though domestic, energy sources, and an ever expanding presence on the globe. Again, the Obama admin has disappointed by falling into this trap and continuing the same old pattern that the previous administration set.

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